Traveler's Notebook

Treasures of Main Street


Story by Rosemary Dietrick, Contributing Writer



Photo Courtesy of Radford Tourism Committee. 

Baskets of flowers hang from street lights. Flags flutter over new brick walkways, and striped awnings shade freshly painted storefronts. The sign on a former tobacco warehouse says, “Art Center.” On a once-barren parking lot, the covered stalls of a farmer’s market display local produce. A firehouse becomes a gallery for artists; benches and sculpture grace the town square. Welcome to a Virginia Main Street community.

 Although the picture is postcard perfect, it’s not all about a new coat of paint on historic buildings or the eye-pleasing frills of a spiffed-up town.

In l985 the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Develop­ment (DHCD) launched the Virginia Main Street Program, which encouraged competitively selected communities across the Commonwealth to strengthen the economic vitality of their downtown commercial districts.

Over the years, the benefits for Virginia Main Street towns, now numbering 21, have included creation of new job opportunities, increases in tax revenues, and an influx of tourists who come to visit, spend in shops, and stay in bed-and-breakfast inns and restored hotels. Bill Shelton, director of DHCD, says, “Each community in the Main Street program has a unique set of assets that makes it special not just to those who live there, but to visitors as well.”

City leaders, elected officials, and volunteers came together to effect changes that enhanced the traditional character of their towns while preserving their unique treasures, both natural and architectural. In celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary, the DHCD compiled a list, “25 Treasures of Main Street,” that identifies signature attractions as ideal destinations for a weekend getaway or a day trip. People were asked to vote for their favorite treasure. And we have the results!

Photo Courtesy of Virginia DHCD

But first a sampling of the 25 treasures of Main Street towns, which are divided into six eclectic categories. Leading the list under the heading of National Landmark showplaces is the venerable Barter Theater in Abingdon, founded in 1933, where playgoers with slim wallets traded “ham for Hamlet” performed by Depression-era Broadway actors. Barter’s topnotch productions are still filling all the seats in the house.

In Marion, the Lincoln Theater, a 1920s movie palace with the exotic decor of a Mayan temple, has been restored, offering concerts from big bands to bluegrass. In Staunton, the Blackfriar’s Playhouse is a re-creation of William Shakespeare’s original indoor theater where lovers of the Bard come to cheer its acclaimed repertory company.

Venues for arts and crafts pop up in historic spaces. Two excellent examples are Berryville’s Fire House Gallery and Shop and The Prizery in South Boston. The refurbished 1930s volunteer firehouse showcases items hand-made by local artists. The award-winning Prizery — a former tobacco warehouse where tobacco was “prized” or pressed into hogshead barrels — is a regional center for performing and cultural arts that reflects the industrial heritage of Halifax County.

Historical Highlights

In Virginia, historical highlights abound. The James Madison Museum in Orange displays presidential papers, furnishings, and a video of his home, Montpelier.

The Hall of Agriculture notes that Thomas Jefferson called Madison “the best farmer in the nation.” You can trace your family history at the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library located in a former Masonic Temple, Bedford’s only example of Romanesque Revival architecture with its bay windows and brick and stone archways.

A night spent in a grand old hotel intrigues, especially if its past is replete with stories that pre-date the Civil War. Fondly known in Abingdon as “the Martha,” the Martha Wash­ingt­on Hotel and Spa, circa 1832, has been a girls’ school and a hospital for wounded soldiers. Its ambience is romantic Old South, but its spa and amenities are thoroughly modern.

Photo Courtesy of Virginia Tourism.

Two other hotels, recently renovated, recall the “roaring ’20s.” Tunes from a vintage Wurlitzer fill the lobby of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in downtown Staunton; locals welcome the return of the landmark with its namesake neon sign once again glowing on the roof. The National Geographic Traveler magazine awarded the General Francis Marion Hotel, named for the Revolutionary War hero, a place on its “To Stay” list, calling the boutique hotel in Marion, “a small-town find.”

Riverfront Parks

Riverfront parks add an extra perk to biking, jogging or trail walking, particularly when the rivers are as prestigious as the New River and the James River, both existing in harmony with city life. In the central part of the city, Radford residents enjoy all the benefits of Bisset Park’s location alongside the New River: canoeing, tubing, kayaking and wade fishing.

Riverwalk in Lynchburg is a downtown treasure that combines skyscraper views and water vistas. A part of the James River Heritage Trail, Riverwalk offers forestland for bikers and hikers and the James River for water sports.

Two communities make standout claims for treasures that represent their heritage. In Martinsville, the iconic Big Chair, 20 feet tall, weighing approximately 5,000 pounds, pays homage to the town’s furniture-manufacturing industry. The giant mission-style chair, made by Bassett Furniture Industries, is a permanent fixture in the town’s business district.

Rocky Mount in Franklin County is the Gateway to the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, which winds through towns known for gospel, bluegrass, and old-time mountain music. To get in the mood for the pickin’ and fiddlin’ along the road ahead, stop by for an open jam session either at Bernard’s Carpet Shop or the Dairy Queen.

Now a drum roll, please, for the people’s overwhelming choice (with 1,644 votes — 44 percent voting). The Favorite Treasure Award goes to ... The Big Chair!

Congratulations, Martinsville!

For more information:

To order Virginia Downtown Driving Tours of Main Street Communities, e-mail


25 Treasures of Main Street

Three national landmark showplaces

1. Barter Theater, Abingdon

2. Lincoln Theater, Marion

3 Blackfriar’s Playhouse, Staunton


Five top spots for arts and crafts

4. Fire House Gallery and Shop, Berryville

5. The Center for the Arts of Greater Manassas at the Candy Factory

6. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg

7. The Prizery, South Boston

8. William King Museum, Abingdon


Six historical highlights

9. Schwartz Tavern, Blackstone

10. A.P. Hill Boyhood Home, Culpeper

11. James Madison Museum, Orange

12. Waynesboro Heritage Museum

13. Old Jail Museum, Warrenton

14. Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library, Bedford


Five historic hotels for a night’s rest

15. Martha Washington Hotel and Spa, Abingdon

16. Mimslyn Inn, Luray

17. George Washington Hotel, Winchester

18. Stonewall Jackson Hotel, Staunton

19. General Francis Marion Hotel, Marion                                                                                                            


Four riverfront parks

20. English Park, Altavista

21. Barretts Landing Riverfront Park, Franklin

22. Bisset Park, Radford

23. James River Heritage Trail Riverwalk, Lynchburg


Two standout claims

24. The Big Chair, Martinsville

25. Gateway to the Crooked Road, Rocky Mount 


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